Around the World in 80 Days
© 1872 Jules Verne
Like most highly-praised western literature, I first read Around the World in 80 Days through the Great Illustrated Classics series, along with other Verne works. I’ve never read Verne as an adult, and decided to remedy that this week. Around the World seemed best, as I was in the mood for a world-traveling adventure.
In the year 1872, Phineas Fogg made a bet with his friends at the local gentleman’s club, staking half his fortune — £20000 — that he could leave the club, take a train to the shore, board a ship, and travel completely around the world in less than three months — in eighty days, in fact. His friends think they are taking their dinner companion for a sucker — travel the world in eighty days? Even with steamships and rail-lines spanning continents, it’s simply not possible! There are too many variables to ensure success — ill weather, for instance, or mechanical failure. Fogg coldly defends his premise and sets out along with his freshly-hired manservant, Passepartout.
Starting from England, Fogg sails through the Suez Canal, intending to travel across India by train and then take connecting steamers from China to Japan and there to the United States; a train across the continent, and a final steamer back to Liverpool. Fogg doesn’t think the odds are against him, although all the world does — and so he dares the universe to do its worst. Even if storms, the Indian jungle, and Sioux raiding parties were not enough to derail Fogg’s timetable, he departs England with a detective on his heels: a policeman named Mr. Fix has decided that the eccentric Mr. Fog, a man of substantial means but no visible way of acquiring them, recently robbed a bank for £12,000 pounds and has set out on this bet to throw the law off his trail.
I didn’t expect a book from the 19th century to be such a breezy, fun read: I look forward to visiting Verne more. Verne is obviously writing for 1872’s readers, who live in a world where a continent may be spanned in a week, where all the world is open to them provided their country has access to sufficient coaling stations: the narrator serves as a tour guide, excitedly lecturing on the geography and history of our characters’ waystations while Fogg stares resolutely toward the future (or to his schedule) and Passepartout stares at the surroundings in confusion and awe. All the varied landscapes of the world carry with them their hazards: some natural, and some fabricated. Passepartout learns that the hard way when he accidentally violates Hindu customs and barely escapes with his life.
A trip around the world in eighty days may seem unremarkable to 21st century personalities accustomed to jet planes, but if readers can settle down into the age in which technological progress was first taken for granted, into a world being radically altered by steam power and nation-states with focused economies, they may stand breathlessly on the deck of a steamship beside Passepourtout and wonder at what is possible. Around the World is definitely one to recommend.